Slumdog Millionaire has raised the hackles of a vast section of the Indian society, with a large section of population up in arms at the portrayal of Indian slums in the movie, slamming director Danny Boyle’s realistic cinema saying “this isn’t a representation of true India.”
Well then, what is? It certainly is NOT Kiran Desai’s Inheritance of Loss. Nor is it Arvind Adiga’s White Tiger. Both of these writers have written about India for Western audiences. Desai paints first-time Indian visitors to foreign shores as poor desis who cannot wrap their heads around the biting London cold, nor use a western loo, nor adapt to their food. Her portrayal of middle class residents in India isn’t flattering either. In her world, Indians who enjoy English classical music, read English books, and enjoy continental food; whose interaction with the “slumdogs” is limited to their daily chats with their maids and watchman, are mere wannabes, who only want to ape the goras and live in a world totally detached from the realities of their poorer brethren.
Slumdog Millionaire, however, has none of those pretentions. All Indians are not portrayed as mere wannabes or totally devoid of adjustment skills. Instead, Boyle focuses on the journey of two slum children who lose their mother in the Hindu-Muslim riots that gripped Bombay. The movie then follows their trials and triumphs, as they move from one odd job to the next, escape a scheming “orphanage” owner who picks up street kids and forces them to beg, to selling odds and ends on trains, and finally landing up in Agra, where, through their fast-thinking and innocent looks, they manage to make enough money to live a comfortable life. Until, of course, they return to Bombay, where their paths diverge. One brother joins an underworld don; the other becomes an office boy at a BPO company, and through sheer luck, participates in a TV reality show Who Wants to be a Millionaire. His life, which we see in flashback through the movie, helps him answer all the questions on the show, and he walks away with a cool million bucks to his name.
In essence, it is a simple story of grit, determination and sheer luck — inspirational, actually. But the reason for it cooking up a hornet’s nest is because of Boyle’s authentic portrayal of slum life — the underbelly of India. It is this that is making us cringe.
True, there have been other Bollywood movies that have shown protagonists rising from the slum to become famous or notorious, depending on the movie —be it Satya, or Rangeela — but we didn’t protest against these movies because they didn’t become an international phenomenon. Nor did they show slums like Boyle did. Their slums were always glossed over; more fantasy than reality. And reality sure bites!
Yes, there is more to India than the Dharavi slums portrayed in Boyle’s movie. But then, Boyle did not portray Slumdog as the “definitive Indian movie.” He chose to tell an inspiring story, and he chose to make realistic cinema. And since that realistic cinema involved a rather unpleasant look at the slums, we just couldn’t digest it.
We could digest Suketu Mehta’s ‘Maximum City: Bombay Lost and Found, though. His book was hailed as the best book on Bombay. And what did his book focus on? The Dharavi slums — on Hindus who burnt Muslims during the riots and the tales of both Hindus and Muslims; of how the riot changed the landscape of Dharavi, leading to a palpable divide between Hindus and Muslims; and on the life of Bombay bar girls. His visits to the slums were interspersed with visits to Hindi movie director Vidu Vinod Chopra’s house, during the time he was preparing for the shooting of Mission Kashmir. A slim section at the end was a commentary on the rich and famous giving up their riches to take sanyas. If his novel were a movie, it would be far, far more graphic than Boyle’s Slumdog Millionaire.
But, there lies the irony. Mehta’s book was hailed as an exceptional piece of writing, maybe because the Pulitzer Prize and Kiriyama Prize are not as hyped, well-known and universally loved as the Oscars and Bafta in India. Boyle’s movie, though, has become a runaway hit, and what’s more, it’s sweeping of all the awards ceremonies. What this section of Indians cannot stand is the fact that the rest of the world is looking at India’s underbelly, and applauding a foreigner — a Britisher no less —- for portraying the abject poverty in which a vast majority of Indians still live, instead of catering to the middle class Indian’s concept of “India shining.”